All the recent news about the United Kingdom took me back to 1974, when I was a college student in Brighton. The oil embargo hit Britain hard that winter while the Troubles in Northern Ireland continued to boil over with occasional bomb threats and road detours.
I learned to live in a culture that wasn’t mine. Part of that was coming to appreciate the rather bland food: a steady diet of fresh peas, roasted potatoes, cranberry stuffing with fowl, well-done roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and for dessert, fruit or most anything with custard sauce.
Whenever I took a day trip from Brighton to London, the dormitory cooks usually sent the same offering—cold fried chicken, a bag of potato crisps (chips), a small red apple, and a wedge of Laughing Cow soft cheese. Then I would buy something to drink at the train station—usually a ginger beer, that spicy soft drink I learned to drink cool, not cold.
The monotony became humorous. Another piece of cold, fried chicken with an apple and a bag of crisps! How fab! A time or two my packed lunch included a ham or watercress sandwich made with that very thin English bread similar to Pepperidge Farm Veri-Thin sandwich loaf. These sandwiches included a mild cheese and butter layer, never mustard or mayonnaise.
Back home, I refused to eat cold chicken on purpose, and the idea of drinking anything less than ice-cold soda was beyond my comprehension, but when you’re hungry enough—and don’t want to spend money you don’t have—you learn to eat what’s put in front of you. I had already endured three semesters of dorm food back home, but food in England was a whole other story. Eating chicken that had been left out of refrigeration half a day at first repulsed me, but watching other people eat it and not die, I figured I might as well join them.
It was considered rude to waste food in a country where half the food was imported, expensive, and “dear.” One shouldn’t take a meal for granted, especially from people who remembered wartime shortages. It wasn’t that anyone told me these things. Wartime hardships were beneath the surface. I knew about the bomb shelter that still existed in the dormitory basement. I had watched my fellow students scarf down everything on their plates, regardless of whether they liked it or not. They had been reared in the 1950s by parents who had occupied the shelters.
The winter of 1974 had its own connection to wartime scarcity. Due to the oil embargo, heat was turned way down. Streets were darkened. Leaving lights on in an unoccupied room could get one arrested.
Food carries memories. I can still see the white cardboard lunch boxes, taste the cold fried chicken. I think of that special time when I spot wedges of Laughing Cow in the dairy case or stumble upon a rare ginger beer. In my case, I should be grateful for whatever the cooks sent with me to London to enjoy on a park bench. The food was nourishing and packed with care. The sandwiches were placed in a form of waxed paper, old-fashioned even by 1974 standards. Plastic wrap had already taken over life in the States. That semester I lost 10 pounds without trying thanks in part to an English diet of fewer fried dishes overall, less junk or processed food, and a lot of walking. The bus stop to classes was more than a mile away.
I learned several other things during my time in England, among them how to appreciate potato chips (French fries) with malt vinegar instead of ketchup. That scampi was another name for shrimp. That milk was delivered each day. It puzzled me why students needed so much milk at all until I realized how much hot tea was consumed that damp and chilly English winter.
Demanding fancier food would have flown in the face of my hosts, be it the cook who prepared my boxed lunch, the English students who watched our every move, or passersby who saw a spoiled American snubbing food considered good enough by everyday English standards. Cold chicken was no longer something to refuse, and so I decided to embrace it and blend in.
In the end, it was the classroom outside the classroom that taught me the lessons I needed to learn.